For the Life of the World: A Liturgical Theology for the Church

Christ as an infant was presented in the Temple and received by the very old Simeon and Anna as the revelation of God, as both “light to the Gentiles” and “glory to His people Israel.” The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple illuminates a fundamental principle of worship: the mystery of Christ coming to us makes possible our reception of and movement towards God. The Liturgy of the Church is the place where God has particularly chosen to make God known and contains five dimensions.
1. The Liturgy of the Church is Mystical. St. Paul says, “We impart a wisdom not of this age… But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory,” (I Corinthians 2:6–7). The liturgy of the church is mystical because it is the dwelling place of God and the extension and offering of Christ’s body for the world. As Leo the Great so famously said: “Ever since Christ is no longer visible among us, the visible presence of our Redeemer passed over into the mysteries.”
2. The Liturgy of the Church is Public: It is for the life of the world. It is not a large semi-private domestic gathering; it proclaims to the world the One who made and redeems it.
Because it is public, the liturgy of the Church is unapologetically formal, which ensures a true welcome to the stranger. Its repetitive nature, its poetic incantatory language, its dignified postures and movements, its use of silence and brief bursts of acclamation and its use of dialogue make it available to the non-literate, to children, and to those who might be considered marginal in society. The behavioral expectations of the liturgy are not in-house, bourgeois, composed for the moment, or spontaneous, but because they are formal and public they make room for those who need to both hide and participate.
We should avoid all attempts to domesticate or “privatize” the liturgy, to make it comfortable. In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard reminds us that the liturgy is dangerous, and if it is not, it is not worship: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or… does no one believe a word of it?…. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
We worship a God who is wholly Other. In fear and trembling we approach the One “who dwells in inaccessible light,” but who comes to us as surely as the Sun rises in the east.
3. The Liturgy of the Church is Beautiful. It is beautiful “because it represents the Victory of Christ over the disfigurement of Sin and Death” says Basil the Great. The art and architecture of the church building, the dignified performance, and the objective enactment of the liturgy proclaim and radiate the power of God to save and transform.
4. The Liturgy of the Church is Disciplined. It is not sentimental, mildly indulging the senses, nor is it rationalistic or didactic. Rather it is vigorous and even strange, provoking a deep participation in the mystical work of Christ, his incarnation and death, and his resurrection and ascension. Alexander Schmeman, celebrated Eastern Orthodox priest and author of a short classic text on the liturgy For the Life of the World, warns the modern church to guard against rationalism. The truth of God in Christ is not irrational, but neither is it rational – it is a mystery. What we proclaim in the liturgy is not an explanation of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. It is rather a witness to the splendor of that truth.
In addition, Flannery O’Connor warns the contemporary church against sentimentality, which it indulges when it refuses to acknowledge sin and sin’s only possible remedy, which is immersion in the suffering of Christ: “We lost our innocence in the fall of our first parents, and our return to it is through the redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite.”

Ruth Widdicombe has been the Music Director at St. Margaret’s Anglican Church for the past 26 years. She grew up in Nigeria, where she loved the vitality of worship in the African Church, and for most of her adult life in Canada, she has been a part of the liturgical leadership in the Anglican Church.

5. The Liturgy of the Church is Organic. In the Liturgy we understand palpably that ‘we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses’ whose prayers and ways of worshipping we enter into and re-engage. As Aidan Nichols reminds us: “Liturgies are not made, they grow in the devotion of centuries.” If we were to “make” them, they would be products of our rational minds. Instead what we enter into is the partial revelation of the mystery of God, which is the gift of God transmitted through the prayer of the Church through time.
The contemporary church needs to recover worship that is objective, solemn – even splendid on occasion, unabashedly public, worship that is not about us, but for us. For the Son of God has indeed come into the Temple, for the life of the World.

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